When we mention the term ‘strength training’, many people immediately start thinking about powerlifting, World’s Strongest Man competitions, and Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk. But the fact is that strength training can be performed in a number of different ways, including body weight exercises and training specifically for functional strength, as well as using the more conventional free weights and cable machines.

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Strength training also provides a number of important benefits for your overall fitness and health, such as reducing the risk of osteoporosis, assisting with weight control, strengthening muscles to prevent against lower back pain, enhancing mobility and balance, and of course improving self-esteem.

However, strength training routines can be intense, and it’s best to find a trusted source with years of experience in what you’re looking to achieve so that you can learn from their mistakes and benefit from their knowledge.

Health benefits of resistance training

Physical and mental health benefits that can be achieved through resistance training include:

  • improved muscle strength and tone – to protect your joints from injury
  • maintaining flexibility and balance, which can help you remain independent as you age
  • weight management and increased muscle-to-fat ratio – as you gain muscle, your body burns more kilo joules when at rest
  • may help reduce or prevent cognitive decline in older people
  • greater stamina – as you grow stronger, you won’t get tired as easily
  • prevention or control of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, back pain, depression and obesity
  • pain management
  • improved mobility and balance
  • improved posture
  • decreased risk of injury
  • increased bone density and strength and reduced risk of osteoporosis
  • improved sense of wellbeing – resistance training may boost your self-confidence, improve your body image and your mood
  • a better night’s sleep and avoidance of insomnia
  • increased self-esteem
  • enhanced performance of everyday tasks.

Basic principles of resistance training

Resistance training consists of various components. Basic principles include the:

  • program – your overall fitness program is composed of various exercise types such as aerobic training, flexibility training, strength training and balance exercises
  • weight – different weights or other types of resistance, for example a 3 kg hand weight or fixed weight, body weight or rubber band will be used for different exercises during your strength training session
  • exercise – a particular movement, for example a calf-raise, is designed to strengthen a particular muscle or group of muscles
  • repetitions or reps – refers to the number of times you continuously repeat each exercise in a set
  • set – is a group of repetitions performed without resting, for example, two sets of squats by 15 reps would mean you do 15 squats then rest muscles before doing another 15 squats
  • rest – you need to rest between sets. Rest periods vary depending on the intensity of exercise being undertaken
  • variety – switching around your workout routine, such as regularly introducing new exercises, challenges your muscles and forces them to adapt and strengthen
  • progressive overload principle – to continue to gain benefits, strength training activities need to be done to the point where it’s hard for you to do another repetition. The aim is to use an appropriate weight or resistant force that will challenge you, while maintaining good technique. Also, regular adjustments to the training variables, such as frequency, duration, exercises for each muscle group, number of exercises for each muscle group, sets and repetitions, help to make sure you progress and improve
  • recovery – muscle needs time to repair and adapt after a workout. A good rule of thumb is to rest the muscle group for up to 48 hours before working the same muscle group again.

Resistance training for beginners

Pre-exercise screening is used to identify people with medical conditions that may put them at a higher risk of experiencing a health problem during physical activity. It is a filter or safety net to help decide if the potential benefits of exercise outweigh the risks for you.

Print a copy of the adult pre-exercise screening tool from Fitness Australia and discuss it with your doctor, allied health or exercise professional.

The Australian Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommend that you do things to strengthen your muscles at least two days a week. These activities should work all the major muscle groups of your body (legs, hips, back, chest, abdomen, shoulders, and arms).

Starting resistance training

It is important to pay attention to safety and good form to reduce the risk of injury. A registered exercise professional can help you develop a safe, effective program.

To start, a typical beginner’s strength training program involves:

  • eight to 10 exercises that work the major muscle groups of the body and are performed two to three times every week
  • beginning with one set of each exercise, comprising as few as eight repetitions (reps), no more than twice a week.

Your aim is to gradually increase to two to three sets for each exercise – comprising eight to 12 reps, every second or third day. Once you can comfortably do 12 reps of an exercise, you should look at progressing further.